When Everton took the pitch on Saturday, the club entered the match with one final chance to make something of what many will view as a wasted season.
The Toffees' Premier League season has been something between an abject failure and moderately underwhelming, depending on who you ask, and the club's encouraging run in the League Cup came to an end in the semi-finals. Still, an FA Cup victory would no doubt turn this season from a failure to a success, a weight which Roberto Martinez and the players had to be carrying at Goodison Park.
If the players and manager were feeling nerves or pressure coming into the match, they certainly didn't show it. Martinez sent his players out with the simple gameplan that has served to improve the team's results over the last two months, and it worked to perfection.
Let's start by looking at the lineup Martinez went with.
In what has surprisingly become Martinez's preferred setup, Aaron Lennon and Tom Cleverley lined up on the right and left wings respectively, with Romelu Lukaku up front and Ross Barkley as the No. 10. The only change from Martinez's preferred lineup came at left-back, where the capable Leighton Baines stepped in for Bryan Oviedo, who missed out after being rushed to the hospital with chest pains this week.
Martinez's goal with this lineup has consistently been to create a more solid defensive core, which gives his most dangerous attacking players the freedom to make plays with the confidence that other players will help the team keep its defensive shape.
Once again, this plan worked out as Martinez planned. A look at Everton's average position map (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) makes this clear.
Lennon and Cleverley spent much of the match almost even with Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, providing extensive defensive cover for the team. In the case of the left side, Cleverley's defensive awareness allowed Leighton Baines to get into the attack more regularly without compromising the side's defense.
I've spent a lot of time praising the contributions of Aaron Lennon, but Cleverley deserves a lot of credit for the work he has put in in the last two months as well. In the last six matches Cleverley has played in, the Toffees have conceded only one goal.
No one will be mistaking him for a true winger, and I don't think he's a solution at that position long-term, but he's good enough in attack to retain his starting position for the rest of the season, given all of the defensive work he does every week.
This week, the Toffees were happy to allow Chelsea to have possession for long spells, because the team had the necessary defensive players to limit Chelsea's chances. Despite Chelsea's 57.3 percent possession, Guus Hiddink's side only took five shots, only one of which was on target. Chelsea only came close to scoring once, when Diego Costa narrowly missed from the tightest of angles around the 60th minute.
Chelsea struggled to create chances because its possession came largely away from the Everton goal, as the graphic below indicates.
Chelsea had a significant possession advantage, but only 25.3 percent of the match was spent in Everton's defensive third, a low percentage given Chelsea's overall possession advantage.
Everton's willingness to allow Chelsea to have possession would likely have existed regardless of what team Hiddink utilized, but the Dutchman's lineup made that gameplan even more sustainable.
Hiddink elected to use two out-and-out holding midfielders in Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel, pushing Cesc Fabregas into the No. 10 role. Chelsea was also without star winger Eden Hazard.
Against a team with two solid holding midfielders, two wingers capable of defending, and a mentality of minimizing chances, Chelsea simply didn't have enough attack-minded players to break down a relatively compact Everton side.
In short, Everton sent out a defensively-capable lineup out against an offensively-challenged Chelsea side. Martinez, as has been the case in multiple successful matches in the second half of the season, trusted that the eight or nine men behind the ball at a time would be able to get the job done defensively, while Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku could create moments of magic in the attack to propel the team to victory.
Lukaku and Barkley came through for the Spanish manager, with the former creating his own chance on the first goal and putting away a second chance created by the latter to put the match out of reach.
The Toffees have strong enough attacking players to consistently create and convert attacking chances in this way against most opposition. With only Crystal Palace, Watford, and Manchester United/West Ham United left in the FA Cup, this is a strategy we will likely see Martinez continue to utilize, provided the proper players are available.
Last week, we saw what can happen when Everton's important players are missing. But, with a full complement of players, there is no reason why the Toffees cannot win the FA Cup playing the way they did Saturday against Chelsea.